1:45 P.M. EST Feb. 25, 2010
A group of United Methodist and United Church of Christ pastors is
challenging the tax-exempt status of a town house in Washington used by
conservative lawmakers. A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry.
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United Methodist clergy are part of a group of 13 Ohio ministers
challenging the tax-exempt status of a Washington, D.C., town house that
claims to function as a church.
“We are concerned that an exclusive residential club for powerful
officials may be masquerading as a church,” the Columbus clergy wrote in
a complaint about C Street Center filed with the Internal Revenue
Service. “Any time an organization uses church status as part of a
tax-avoidance scheme, it poses a threat to the integrity of religious
The C Street town house, assessed at $1.8 million, is an affiliate of an
international Christian network known as the Fellowship, The New York
Times reported. The group sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast held in
Washington and some state capitals each February.
J. Robert Hunter, a member of the Fellowship, told the Times that while
there was a separate legal arrangement, there was a “very close working
relationship” between the center and the Fellowship. He said religious
services were often held in the building, but were not open to the
The center was in the news after Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina
received spiritual counseling there following his acknowledgement of an
extramarital affair. Some members of Congress also have inexpensive
lodgings at the building.
Not a church, say pastors
The Rev. Eric Williams, senior minister at North Congregational United
Church of Christ, organized the complaint as part of an ad hoc group
called Clergy Voice. He said that while there is speculation on what
actually goes on at the C Street Center, the building is not functioning
as a church.
“It doesn’t do anything that my church does or anything that my
colleagues’ churches do,” Williams explained. “There’s no transparency
at all about the C Street Center.”
United Methodists who signed the Feb. 23 complaint were the Rev. David
Meredith, senior minister, Broad Street United Methodist Church; the
Rev. William Casto, a retired professor at Methodist Theological
Seminary of Ohio; and the Rev. James Gebhart, a clinical psychologist
and pastoral counselor for the West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference.
The issue is not which side of the political spectrum is represented by
the C Street Center, but how it operates, Meredith said.
“It is a bad reflection on all of us who do that when an organization of
this nature does it (tax-exempt status) for political, partisan
purposes and does it in a clandestine way. They’re just not church.
“I take the name of Jesus seriously. What I do reflects on it,” Meredith
said. “When people are reflecting badly on it, sometimes they have to
Gebhart noted that separation of church and state is necessary both for
religious freedom and to protect the state from religious zealots. He
and Casto said they were disturbed about the secretive nature of the
organization connected with the C Street Center.
The ad hoc group has filed two other complaints with the IRS in the past
four years related to political activities forbidden for churches with
In 2006, 31 pastors requested an investigation into whether two Ohio
megachurches – World Harvest Church in Columbus and the Fairfield
Christian Church in Lancaster – overtly supported a Republican candidate
In 2008, 45 ministers filed a complaint about the Alliance Defense Fund,
a nonprofit group that it said was urging churches to take sides in
political campaigns through its “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
In the previous cases, Casto said, the group was questioning whether
recognized churches were obeying IRS rules for tax-exempt religious
institutions. “In this case, we are saying C Street is not a church,” he
The complaint points out that the center “has no recognized creed or
form of worship, no distinct ecclesiastical government and no formal
code of doctrine,” and does not seem to be led by ordained ministers.
“The IRS could not act until they had an official complaint,” Gebhart
said. “Now our hope is the secrecy will be opened up, and they will have
to be accountable to the public for what they do.”
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.